Statement by Lauren Pond, Multimedia Producer for the American Religious Sounds Project (with contributions by Isaac Weiner)
The American Religious Sounds Project (ARSP), a collaborative research initiative co-directed by Amy DeRogatis (Michigan State University) and Isaac Weiner (The Ohio State University), asks a fundamental question: What can we learn about religion if we begin by listening for it? But this first question also begs a second: What is religious sound?
Often, when thinking about religion, it is devotional sounds that come to mind: the Islamic call to prayer, the clanging of church bells, the chanting of Buddhist monks. These sounds are easily coded as “religious,” perhaps because they unfold at recognized institutions, or because they are associated with formal practices. But what about the rhetoric of a street preacher shouting at passers-by? Or ambient kitchen noise during the preparation of a sacred meal? The ARSP often encourages recordists and listeners to use a more discerning ear – to attend to unexpected manifestations of religion, and to the ways it moves beyond traditional boundaries and interacts with its surroundings.
This audiography was produced with these ideas in mind. Three audio collages explore ways that multiple religious traditions – evangelical Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam – come into contact with various physical, cultural, and political contexts. Traditional devotional sounds are secondary or totally absent in most cases, encouraging both recordist and listener to focus on the intersection of religion with other spheres, and the insights that this may yield.
The first piece focuses on a bustling TA Travel Center in Lodi, Ohio, and the presence of a chapel therein. Transport for Christ (TFC), an evangelical trucker ministry, has placed dozens of these so-called “mobile chapels” (semi-tractor trailers-turned houses of worship) at truck stops across the nation. The Lodi chapel provides on-call chaplains, regular worship services, and Bible study sessions, which are attended primarily by truck drivers.
Audio captures parts of a Sunday service at the TFC chapel, during which a chaplain exhorts drivers not to fall for human deceit, and to embrace kindness, humility, meekness, and love; it also captures the conclusion of the service, when the chaplain leads the hymn “Amazing Grace” and offers a prayer for one driver’s neck pain. But in the collage, these more expected devotional sounds unfold against a backdrop of idling trucks, whose engines roar in the parking lot just outside the chapel; the steady hum of travel center refrigerators, stocked with cold beverages; and the idle chatter of the politicians and infomercials that drivers are watching on television. On the road in his truck cab, driver Pete Douglas vocalizes his frustration with the contemporary trucking industry, including its lower pay and longer hauls.
This sonic combination invites listeners to understand the TFC mobile chapel as an entity integrated into truck driver life and responsive to its challenges. It also alludes to the growing efforts of evangelical Christianity to leave traditional institutions and “meet people where they are.” Not only do the chaplains’ words speak directly to some of the issues drivers encounter and provide encouragement for the road; the quiet of the chapel interior stands in sharp contrast to the din of the truck stop, suggesting that this is a place of calm and respite - if only a temporary one.
The second piece sonically depicts preparations for a Lenten fish dinner in the basement of Columbus, Ohio’s St. Stevan of Dechani Serbian Orthodox Church. In preparation for Easter, many Christians observe Lent through introspection, self-evaluation, fasting, and abstention, including from rich foods like red meat. Churches may serve milder meals as an alternative, and in American institutions, fish is often the focus. At the St. Stevan’s parish, volunteers collaborate for several hours in the church’s kitchen to cook platters of baked and fried fish, seasoned potatoes, and coleslaw, among other dishes, all made from scratch and free of meat and dairy products.
In this collage, what might normally be considered background noise comes to the foreground: the chopping of vegetables for Serbian dishes, traditional music, excited conversations in native tongues. These ambient details add new layers of meaning, alluding, for instance, to the strong ethnic ties of this parish, its celebration of its Eastern European heritage, and its simultaneous embrace of American traditions . Alternatively, the sounds are a reminder that community and convivial sociality are as foundational to whatever we might consider religious as are the formal worship practices occurring in the church sanctuary above.
The third and final piece documents a protest against then-newly inaugurated President Donald Trump’s first travel ban, which targeted Muslim-majority countries. The public reaction to the ban was swift and loud, with protests erupting immediately at airports nationwide in January 2017, including at the John Glenn International Airport in Columbus, Ohio. On a bitterly cold afternoon, hundreds of people, many of them Muslim, gathered on the airport grounds and marched to the main terminal. There, different Muslims took turns using a megaphone to denounce discrimination and bigotry.
First, by focusing on this intersection of Islam and protest, the collage calls listeners’ attention to the increasing politicization of Islam and Muslims in recent years. But the acoustics in the physical space of the protest are also deeply symbolic. At the outset, one hears movement: the sounds of participants walking, the roar of jet engines, and the rhyme and meter of protest chants, such as: “No ban, no reg-is-try, no white su-prem-a-cy.” As protesters reach the airport terminal, the sonic experience changes drastically. Individual voices merge into an undulating, encompassing soundscape, into waves of sound that ricochet off of concrete barriers and drown out all other noise. Fittingly, this protest against religious immobility evokes the sense of being trapped.
And yet, there is also something reassuring about this ricocheting sea of voices. Within these concrete confines, protesters’ individual voices combine to form a powerful, communal one, a unified statement against bigotry and Islamophobia. One senses a communal energy and growing resistance that cannot be quelled.
Lauren Pond is a documentary artist who specializes in faith and religion. Using photography, audio, and other media, she explores the intersection of belief and culture. She often takes an immersive approach in her work, allowing her to experience daily life in religious communities and portray them in a deeply nuanced manner. Lauren frequently collaborates with scholars and currently works as the multimedia producer for the American Religious Sounds Project, a collaborative research initiative led by The Ohio State University and Michigan State University. She was recently named the inaugural artist fellow of Saint Louis University’s Lived Religion in the Digital Age initiative. In 2017, she received the prestigious Duke Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for her project Test of Faith, which was published that autumn by Duke University Press.